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Books: Spinning the president

Books | A Washington journalist's new book on White House damage control paints more vividly than Primary Colors

Issue: "Paying with your life," April 4, 1998

How do you solve a problem like Bill Clinton? White House spokesman Mike McCurry and fellow handlers must figure that out every day. Now there's an inside-the-Beltway book called Spin Cycle that tells in microscopic detail how they do it. It takes a look at a year of crises ranging from Webster Hubbell to Monica Lewinsky. Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz depicts the fast-on-his-feet press secretary in a daily chess game with Beltway reporters. Every day, there's a duck and weave seen coast to coast on C-SPAN. Then there's the less visible task of molding, manipulating, and hiding a story before it gets into the hands of the gaggle of journalists. Every so often, a paranoid flare flies from the roof of the While House. Earlier this year, Mr. McCurry told a reporter his boss was "just convinced there's some general global conspiracy out to ruin his life and make him miserable." True to form, he soon threw up a benign interpretation when NBC's Tim Russert asked him about the quote. By then, the cycle was running amok as media manipulators feverishly threw lots of sandbags in front of Camelot. Mr. Kurtz portrays the spokesman as a hard-working, fast-thinking guy who doesn't want to abandon his boss in time of trouble. Mr. McCurry's initiation into spin doctoring was in the office of Pete Williams, a senator convicted in the Abscam scandal. Mr. McCurry wound up testifying in his boss's bribery and conspiracy trial. Having learned his lesson, Mr. McCurry decided not to find out all the troubling details of President Clinton's problems, thus making him unbreakable. "I don't know" means "I don't know." Before Mr. McCurry took the job, Newsweek reporter Joe Klein was covering Bill Clinton on the campaign trail. Mr. Kurtz describes him as getting close access to Bill, then losing it after the inauguration. Jilted, Mr. Klein turned against the president and fired off his anonymous Primary Colors novel about sex scandals. Now the book is a ho-hum movie (rated R for language and sexual situations) with John Travolta in a creepy makeup job as Jack Stanton, the tale's smooth-talking southern Democrat. Emma Thompson is the Hillary and Billy Bob Thornton is the James Carville. There's also Kathy Bates as a crazy lesbian damage-controller with a heart of gold. Everything is told through the eyes of oh-so-sincere Henry Burton (Adrian Lester). He's the grandson of a civil-rights leader and a true-believing liberal who thinks Stanton feels our pain even though he's a womanizing cheat. Primary Colors gives us two mistresses (a Gennifer Flowers type with doctored tapes and a 17-year-old babysitter) and a one-night stand (a school librarian in charge of an adult literacy program that served as a campaign backdrop). Too bad, but Primary Colors drags on forever. It feels longer than Titanic. Bill Clinton used some presidential persuasion (WORLD, March 7) to make sure the movie depicted Stanton as a good guy. It did, by hammering the everybody-does-it theme and showing the hero's corruption as the justifiable means to the glorious end of electing a president who cares. Want to understand the White House? Forget Primary Colors. Spin Cycle is a much better guide to the continuing saga of how news is manipulated by the White House.

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